Get the Tank Outta Here!
With Phase One of the 2019-20 NHL Draft Lottery completed, many hockey fans have voiced their negative opinions on the format of the lottery this season, as a placeholder team won the first overall pick. Teams that were very bad this season, like the Detroit Red Wings, got ripped off and were denied the opportunity to pick a player they really needed. Instead Alexis Lafrenière, the projected first overall pick, will go to a team that is closer to becoming a Stanley Cup champion rather than a perennial loser. Imagine a player of Lafrenière’s caliber on the Pittsburgh Penguins. It would be completely unfair for the rest of the league. The phrase “perennial losers” refers to teams such as the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, and Detroit Red Wings, and is synonymous with “tanking”. Teams that constantly find themselves at the bottom of the league can’t seem to find the right direction their franchise should be heading. Tanking is not a viable option for rebuilding teams for two reasons: the lottery system, from this year specifically, is broken and it’s not a guarantee that the first overall pick will turn a franchise around right away.
Let me point out that tanking is usually defined as “purposely throwing games to get better odds at the first overall pick or a higher draft pick”. However, the proper way to tank is to make your roster so bad that you cannot possibly win too many games. In other words, trade all or most of the older, experienced players for draft picks and prospects and then start younger players to allow them to grow. This is exactly what the Rangers did after they sent out the letter in February 2018. Players like Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, and Kevin Hayes were shipped off to playoff-bound teams for picks and prospects who are now part of the team. With all of those players gone, the only above average players left were Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. However, losing more games doesn’t guarantee that you will get a higher pick. The lottery system is designed so that teams do not tank. A team can go 0-82 and still not get the first overall pick. In fact it is more likely for the worst team to move back three spots than it is for them to pick first. According to tankathon.com the Red Wings, who failed to reach 20 wins and 40 points this season and had 23 less points than the next closest team, had an 18.5% chance of drafting first, but a 50.6% chance of picking fourth overall. And of course, the Wings dropped back three spots on Friday and watched an unidentified team that is possibly very good leap ahead and grab that first pick. Tanking is for video games.
Need more evidence? Take a look at this graphic. The teams that always lose have had the absolute worst luck. Detroit has moved back every year since their legendary playoff streak ended. Vancouver has finished in the bottom ten every year (except for this year) since 2015-16 and has never moved up. They also finished in the bottom five twice and the bottom six once. Even teams that have had significant luck with the lottery (I’m looking at you Edmonton) have failed to capitalize with their draft picks. The Oilers won the lottery four times in six years, including three years in a row from 2009-10 to 2011-12. It wasn’t until they drafted Connor McDavid that they turned their fortunes around.
Not every player taken with the first pick in the draft can have an immediate impact on a team. Believe it or not it took two seasons for the Washington Capitals to consistently make the playoffs after they drafted Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004. Sidney Crosby was not able to lead his team to the playoffs in his rookie season, in fact the 2005-06 Penguins were abysmal, finishing with a 22-46-14 record. But that was the last season in which the Pens failed to qualify for the playoffs. Since 2000, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, and Auston Matthews are the only players to lead their teams to the playoffs in their rookie seasons after being drafted first overall.
This draft class is incredibly deep but there is a clear separation between the NHL-ready talent and the prospects that will take a few years to develop. Lafrenière is really the only true prospect from this draft class that should be on an NHL roster at the start of next season. Lots of Rangers fans believe that we should intentionally lose our qualifying round matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes in order to have a 12.5% chance of picking Lafrenière. Unfortunately, there is no way for the Rangers to both win the Stanley Cup and get the first overall pick, despite many fans’ attempts of “what if” scenarios. In order for that to happen, two placeholder teams would have needed to win the lottery. And the Rangers have proven that they will not throw games to get a better pick. In the final game of last season, Ryan Strome scored in overtime against the Penguins, and if it weren’t for that extra point we wouldn’t have won the lottery. Trading up for the pick is an even dumber option. You would have to give up the two firsts this year, multiple prospects, and probably Georgiev, and I don’t think that would even be enough. I’d rather hold on to the two picks and use them to fill up the prospect pool even more, for depth in the future. Don’t get me wrong I think Lafrenière on a line with Panarin would be amazing but I don’t want to give away everything we’ve built up over the last two years just for one player.